The Vallejo City Council this month declared a public safety emergency, clearing the way for the city to undertake a raft of actions intended to reform a police department beset by scandal, rising crime rates, a high number of people killed by officers, and a troubled relationship with its community.

The vote was unanimous, and councilmembers suggested it was a politically tough one.

“This is a brave step for our city and it’s necessary,” said Councilwoman Katy Miessner, urging her colleagues to support the proposal. “It’s a difficult time and this is a step we have to go forward with.”

After the Oct. 6 vote, Mayor Bob Sampayan, a former Vallejo police sergeant, said, “It’s a very brave step for all of us, but it’s something that needed to be done.”

The powerful Vallejo Police Officers’ Association, or VPOA, swiftly condemned the vote.

Peter Hoffmann, an attorney for the association, called the declaration an “abuse of power” and said the VPOA would pursue “all legal and administrative remedies to combat” it.

“The city has invented this ’emergency’ to give it unusual, unnecessary and illegal powers,” Hoffmann wrote in an email following the vote. “The VPOA is going to fight their action to protect the safety of officers and citizens and to preserve our rights.”

In another measure of the antagonism at play between the association and the city, the VPOA before the meeting issued a statement saying, “The city can’t declare an emergency when they are the one that caused the emergency.”

Deadly pace

Vallejo is on pace for its deadliest year since 1994, with 22 homicides in 2020 so far, compared to nine at this time last year, and 358 shooting victims. Rapes are up 20 percent since last year, Police Chief Shawny Williams reported.

Contributing to public mistrust of the department, officers have killed 19 people since 2010, the great majority being men of color.

The city currently faces 37 claims related to police conduct, 24 of them related to use of force. The claims represent potential out-of-pocket costs to the city of $15 million to $20 million, City Manager Greg Nyhoff said.

The list of intended police reforms is lengthy, ranging from increasing the diversity and caliber of new officers, to working more closely with other law enforcement agencies, to evaluating whether some police functions should be done by other private or public agencies or by non-sworn personnel.

“We face a crisis of legitimacy and trust, lack of community trust in (the) police department, numerous internal investigations are underway, continual resistance to reform efforts by Vallejo Police Officers Association.”

City Manager Greg Nyhoff

Two elements of the plan are particularly notable.

One would allow Williams — who joined the department in November 2019 and said his management team is desperately undermanned — to hire command staff without going through the normal civil service process.

“I need an executive team to lead the reforms that citizens are demanding,” said Williams.

A second piece of the plan would allow the city to implement reforms without going through the meet and confer process with the police officers’ association, which is seen by many as an impediment to change.

State labor laws require employers to meet with employees whose working conditions would be affected by new policies before those policies are enacted. Those discussions can lead to lengthy negotiations that would slow the progress of needed reforms, interim City Attorney Randy Risner said in a staff report. Under the plan approved this month, the city must meet with the association after reform steps are implemented.

Hoffmann said the officers’ association has “been at the forefront” of pushing for police reforms and wants to work with the city and department to implement recommendations in a consultant’s report commissioned by the city to improve its policing.

VPOA says more officers needed

The association has also argued loudly that the key to reducing crime is to hire more officers; the department has about 110 now.

“What the citizens and VPOA need is more cops on the streets, not more administrators behind desks,” Hoffmann.

But Nyhoff said the association is part of the problem.

“We face a crisis of legitimacy and trust, lack of community trust in (the) police department, numerous internal investigations are underway, continual resistance to reform efforts by Vallejo Police Officers Association,” he said.

Among the internal investigations is one spurred by an investigation by the independent Open Vallejo news organization, which reported that there is a group of Vallejo officers who bend their badges each time they fatally shoot someone. Another investigation is looking into reports that a swastika image was included in at least one internal police department communication.

Some members of the public who commented during the council’s Zoom meeting supported declaring an emergency. But the vast majority of those who spoke did not, arguing that it would concentrate too much power in the hands of Nyhoff and Williams; that the department was corrupt and could not reform itself; and that the reform plan was fiscally imprudent.

Nyhoff said it was too early to determine a precise figure, but that the reform initiative would likely cost in the neighborhood of $500,000 to $1 million a year and that spending would need the council’s approval.

Common Ground, a civic organization of congregations, unions and nonprofit groups in Solano and Napa counties with which city officials had met to discuss the public safety emergency, did not take a position on the proposal. But leaders of the organization said that they were eager to work toward much-needed police reforms as the plan moves forward.

Crystal Stephan of the organization’s Public Safety Team said, “We want to see a police accountability model with some real teeth, and we’re looking forward to working with the city and police department to make it happen.”

The full Oct. 6 Vallejo City Council meeting can be viewed on the city’s website.